Exhibiting a “can-do” attitude as a composer

I would like to share a philosophical concept with everyone here that has served me well throughout my career path to date. I have spoken about this before to my students at UCLA Extension and also shared it with many of my AFM 47 friends and colleagues a couple years back when there was open discussion going on about how to deal with local union challenges. It is the philosophical concept that instead of approaching problems and challenges asked of you with a “No, I can’t do that because…”, you instead approach those questions and challenges with a “Yes, I can do that IF…” mentality. Let me explain.

As a composer for media, we are typically hired onto a team of creative professionals at the end of a long filmmaking process. There is rarely a film, TV show or Video Game in its Post Production process that will not have music problems to solve or figure out and we as composers (who are often working on “package deals” to deliver our final product) are presented with the expectation that we can and will solve those music department problems as they occur. They are our responsibility.

On one of my past projects, I was asked by my producers if we could move the music due date up by 2 weeks from the previous contractual agreed upon date, to accommodate a new desire to screen the film at a special festival in front of a very targeted “test audience.” Given our schedule and budget, there were a lot of challenges with this request. We were already a union project at this point. And this would have cut my time to score the film from 6 weeks to just 4 in total. The recording date had been booked and while there was a budget for the already booked AFM scoring session, the overall music budget did not allow for the cost of an orchestrator. I was doing my own orchestrations as “benefits only”. If I had said to their request, “No, we are not able to move the music due date up by two weeks because, the session is already booked”…or…” because there is not enough time to get all the work done two weeks early”…or…”because we do not have the budget for this”…or, “because [fill in the blank for valid reasons here]”…I would have just been seen as another barrier toward solving a big music problem…which would have all snowballed into essentially being “my fault.”

Saying, “No, because…” ALWAYS shuts down all possibility. It causes you to become a barrier to progress and part of the problem, instead of part of the solution. And you are, after all, hired to solve these very problems as they come up.

By answering the question of moving the due date up by two weeks with “Yes, we can do that IF…” all of a sudden, that opened up a myriad of possibilities. The “IF” could be ANYTHING I needed to set myself up for success in solving the problems presented to me. The possibilities could be endless.

“Yes, IF we can expand the music team with more people to complete the tasks by the new deadline. Yes….IF we can find a new available session date sooner. Yes, IF I can hire an orchestrator to do the orchestrations and music copy / part preparations that I was previously going to be doing myself those last two weeks before the recording date.” I answered my producers with that very thing. “Yes, we can absolutely move the due date up, IF we can hire an orchestrator.” I explained the reasons and walked them through it. They completely understood and were excited the possibility still existed. They knew what they were asking would not be easy. I immediately researched the cost of hiring an orchestrator as a package deal based on the minutes of score my team was preparing. I got three bids from accomplished orchestrators in town and presented them to my producers. Upon hearing the cost, which was not cheap, they then evaluated what was possible for their budget and in the end they decided (and were comfortable) in NOT hiring an orchestrator to come in and told me to continue with the orchestrations myself along with my original music due date as planned. But that decision to not change course and to continue as originally planned was 100% theirs. Not mine. And believe me, I was fully willing to come up with more “Ifs” if need be. A plan B to accomplish their request. A plan C, etc….But they were happy with it. We moved on, finished the film and when our session happened, they were still ecstatic. One producer came up to me on a session break and said, “How did you do this? This is amazing.”

So…when presented with challenges and problems while on a project, I encourage you to answer them with a “yes, I can do that IF…” instead of a “No, I can’t do that because…”. It is, in my opinion, one important factor to having the positive, “can-do” attitude you need to have to be successful as a media composer.